LONDON (Reuters) - British lawmakers on Tuesday narrowly approved a measure that could make it harder for the next prime minister to force through a no-deal Brexit by suspending parliament, although the move stopped short of an outright block.
Boris Johnson, the favourite to take over as Conservative party leader and run Britain’s departure from the European Union, has argued the country should leave the EU on Oct. 31 even if no formal transition deal has been agreed.
This has raised speculation that Johnson could suspend parliament to prevent lawmakers, a majority of whom have expressed their opposition to a no-deal Brexit, from thwarting his “do or die” exit plan.
On Tuesday, lawmakers voted 294-293 in favour of a change to legislation passing through parliament which would require ministers to make fortnightly reports on progress towards re-establishing Northern Ireland’s collapsed executive.
This could complicate any attempt to suspend parliament later in the year as a way to prevent lawmakers from trying to bar a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31. Supplementary measures intended to strengthen the plan were rejected.
Nevertheless, those hoping to stop a no-deal Brexit believe their plan could require parliament to be in session throughout the run-up to Brexit day, complicating any bid by Britain’s new prime minister to “prorogue” - or suspend - the legislature.
“I freely admit that one of the purposes behind these amendments is to try to ensure that this extraordinary threat ... - that we should be prorogued - can be banged on the head,” said Dominic Grieve, the Conservative lawmaker behind the proposal, ahead of the votes.
If parliament is sitting, those opposed to a no-deal Brexit believe they can find a way to block an unmanaged exit that investors fear would cause major disruption to the world’s fifth-largest economy and to its trading partners.
Britain’s next prime minister will be announced on July 23 following a postal ballot of Conservative Party members.
Johnson has not ruled out suspending parliament, but is hoping instead to renegotiate a Brexit deal that can be approved by lawmakers. Brussels has said the existing deal, which parliament has rejected three times, cannot be reopened.
While one element of the plan to prevent a suspension of parliament was approved, others were rejected and the most far reaching part was disqualified by the Speaker’s office before it was debated. In line with convention, no reason for the disqualification was given.
The legislation still has to complete several more stages of scrutiny before being finalised and becoming law.
Nevertheless it highlights both parliament’s opposition to no deal and the potential for legal challenge, adding more uncertainty if Johnson wins power and has to resort to untested measures to honour his Oct. 31 exit promise to the broadly hardline, pro-Brexit Conservative party membership.
“It would create legal risk if it were enacted - I’m sure if there were an attempt to prorogue parliament there would be litigation, and I think the courts would be in a tight spot if that were the case,” said Richard Ekins, Associate Professor at the University of Oxford and head of the Policy Exchange think tank’s “Judicial Power Project”.
Reporting by William James; Editing by William Schomberg and Mark Heinrich